By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 12, 2008
NEW YORK -- In a borrowed office at 30 Rock, Chuck Todd is on his cellphone, telling a Barack Obama strategist that his boss will probably fall just short of winning Indiana that night.
"Are you really going to ask for a recount over one delegate?" NBC's political director asks, swiveling in his chair. "It is literally one delegate!"
Less than an hour later, Todd is in front of a bright green wall in Studio 3K, a map of Indiana projected behind him, Hillary Clinton clinging to a fragile lead, when MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann asks: "Did it just end tonight?"
"It may just have ended," Todd says, virtually pronouncing Obama the Democratic nominee at 12:09 a.m. Wednesday.
For political junkies, Todd has become all but inescapable. When he isn't shuttling between studios, he is being invoked as an authority by one anchor or another. After a career out of the limelight, the genial 36-year-old is the campaign season's most improbable TV star.
Every organization has someone like "Chuckie T," as his colleagues call him. He is the brainy guy poring over computer printouts, the number cruncher in the back office. But the voracious appetite of cable news has given him a huge megaphone and an outsize role in shaping coverage of the White House race.
Todd admits to worrying about overexposure, saying: "I don't like going on if I don't feel like I have new information or an interesting way to present the information." But he justifies his ubiquity by noting that audiences drift in and out all day.
When he started at NBC a year ago, Todd felt he was struggling. "The hardest part is to explain the minutiae clearly," he says. "Now I can take the minutiae and make it sound like English for laypeople who haven't been following the DNC delegate rules for 20 years."
Tim Russert, NBC's Washington bureau chief, hired him from the Hotline, the online political digest, telling Todd that beyond his office duties he would get a tryout on "Meet the Press." Apparently Todd passed the audition. "The secret to his success is he understands politics and can explain it," Russert says. "Our platforms are 24/7, and someone has to man the platforms."
Todd is also the point man for dealing with the campaigns. "I think he has emerged as one of the most clear-eyed, honest-dealing pundits in the media," says Obama spokesman Bill Burton. "I have nothing but respect for all of the balls he juggles all day."
Most network political directors labor in obscurity. Few outside the political community knew Todd's predecessor at NBC, Elizabeth Wilner. The most prominent of the bunch was ABC's former political director, Mark Halperin, whom Todd viewed as a model.
On a cable channel packed with such opinionated personalities as Olbermann and Chris Matthews, Todd stands out by not being flamboyant. While others are getting punch-drunk on polls, New York Times critic Alessandra Stanley observed, Todd is "the designated driver of MSNBC's political coverage."
He is accustomed to the role. During his boyhood in Miami, Todd recalls, his conservative father and a liberal cousin often got sloshed and argued about politics.
Todd was 16 when his dad died. Strapped for cash, Todd was accepted by George Washington University on a music scholarship -- he played the French horn -- and pursued a double major in politics.
Longtime friend Andrew Flagel, now George Mason University's dean of admissions, says Todd had phenomenal recall, "whether it had to do with every sports fact you could ever have at your fingertips or every congressional race. He was the Jimmy the Greek of politics. We'd be out at one of the bars in Georgetown or Foggy Bottom and he'd end up with 20 people around us, arguing about either politics or sports, and he's emceeing the discussion."
While in college, Todd worked for the 1992 presidential campaign of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and later started part time at the Hotline. He left school six credits short of graduation. "It's not the proudest thing on my résumé," he says.
The Hotline, with its exhaustive summaries of stories, polls and punditry, seemed like a perfect fit. "From the very first day," says founder Doug Bailey, "it was obvious this was a guy whose instincts were brilliant. And his work ethic was extraordinary." Bailey recalls telling Todd at an Orioles game a year later: "You're going to run this publication one day, so pay attention."
By 2001, Todd had indeed become editor in chief. A year later he married Kristian Denny, a Democratic consultant who served as communications director for Jim Webb's successful 2006 Senate campaign in Virginia. (Todd says he disclosed the connection on the air and tried to avoid discussing Virginia politics.)
Todd, whose role ranges from suggesting stories for correspondents to overseeing NBC's political blog First Read, excels at cutting through the fog. But on occasion he subscribes to conventional wisdom that turns out to be wrong. The day before the New Hampshire primary, he said on "Hardball" that Obama's "trajectory is still going up," that "everybody's thinking this is going to be a blowout," and that Clinton "is on the cusp of what could be the end of her national political career." Clinton, of course, stunned the pundits by winning New Hampshire.
* * *
It is Tuesday, another primary day, and Todd's first stop is the "Today" show. At 7:13 a.m., he tells Meredith Vieira that the day's voting in Indiana and North Carolina won't have much impact on the delegate count, but "perception's everything." He offers a similar analysis on MSNBC at 7:52 and 9:02.
Matthews leads off "Hardball" at 5 p.m. by saying, "As our political director Chuck Todd put it, this is the last shopping day of the primary season." Todd's theory is that the real action is about to shift from the campaign trail to the superdelegates. On the show, he fields hypothetical questions about what would happen if Obama lost both states. "It would be one of those stomach punches," he says.
Shortly before 6, Todd is briefed on the networks' exit polls. Minutes later he is back in front of the green wall to rehearse with an interactive gizmo, mounted on a tall stand, that enables him to summon maps and graphics and write on them in virtual red ink. "I just tap it? Now, do I pop up Indiana or is Indiana popped up for me?"
At 6:08 Todd does it for real, getting down in the political weeds by rattling off the congressional districts deemed favorable to each candidate. An hour later, wearing a lavalier mike and earpiece that allows him to talk to the producers as he roams the halls, Todd gets into an argument about devoting the next segment to Indiana while ignoring Obama's apparent win in North Carolina. "That's why we get criticized," he says. (The segment is killed when the previous discussion runs long.)
After chatting with Brian Williams for the Mountain Time zone feed of "NBC Nightly News," Todd is back on MSNBC, then on the phone again with the Obama camp. Between swigs of VitaminWater, he is trying to figure out whether the 250,000 votes still uncounted in Indiana are in counties that are Obama strongholds.
"I see nothing out of Lake, nothing out of Porter. . . . You can't call it when you've got nothing out of Gary!"
At 9:18, while Obama is speaking in North Carolina, Todd briefs a producer on the Indiana vote, saying that "if he just wins 55 percent of what's out, he's going to win." Todd later repeats this on the air, writing "55" on his virtual map.
Just before 10 p.m., with Clinton still leading by 6 percentage points, the anchors wonder on the air why Lake County, which includes Gary, hasn't reported yet. "Can we find out, Keith, why we're delayed in getting this vote?" Tom Brokaw asks.
"I will ask Chuck Todd," Olbermann says.
As the night wears on, Todd keeps refining his projection of how much of the Lake County vote Obama needs to upset Clinton. There is also on-air joking with Olbermann about whether MSNBC will call the race at the very moment Todd is on the air explaining that it's too close to call -- which happened during the South Carolina primary and again during Florida. While Todd supervises the political unit, election-night calls are made by polling experts at a separate decision desk.
When Todd delivers his post-midnight conclusion that the Democratic race may have ended, he knows full well the weight of his words. Clinton is close to winning Indiana by 2 percentage points, but the way the media score such things, it is a setback because she was expected to carry the state by a bigger margin. ("Nobody wants to stomp on the grave, but at the same time, reality's reality," he explains off the air.)
When Todd appears at the green wall again at 1:07 a.m., everyone seems a bit punchy. He loosens his yellow tie, asking: "Am I dressed too formally?" Dan Abrams, the late-shift anchor, interrupts Todd to project Clinton the winner in Indiana.
Six hours later, at 7:45 a.m., Todd is back before the cameras. He does "Morning Joe" ("Obama found his voice and put her on the defensive," he says), "Hardball" and "Countdown." "You are unbelievable," Matthews tells him. "I feel like Captain Kirk sometimes and you're Mr. Spock."
While the Obama camp praises Todd, relations have been more strained with top Clinton strategists, who view MSNBC as a blatantly pro-Obama network and have complained about remarks by Matthews and correspondent David Shuster, among others. Clinton aides say Todd is a straight shooter but question his ability to rein in the bigger guns at the network. Todd has told colleagues he is frustrated by the complaints and the perception that MSNBC is biased.
"That's the hardest part of this job," Todd says of fencing with the campaigns. "It's nothing but negative reinforcement: 'You guys are so in the tank for X,' or 'Why are you showing that negative ad 25 times?' "
The job is relentless -- though the Arlington resident, who has two children, still makes time to go to his 4-year-old daughter's soccer games -- but the goateed guru doesn't complain about the demands of television. "I don't want to sound like I'm faking being humble, but I never thought of myself as a TV guy," Todd says. "I just assumed I didn't fit the stereotype."
Meaning? "The looks thing. I've got facial hair -- that's supposed to be a no-no. I've got too many chins."